You don’t know them

When you see someone on TV, or read what they write on a blog or YouTube comment, you don’t know them. This sounds obvious, but judging from the volumes and volumes of discussions on the Internet, no one seems to take this to heart.

Even if you’ve watched someone’s show for years, you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of what this person is all about. A talk show host might be an avid hunter, or a drinker, or a plastic model kit geek, and we would never, ever know.

But so many of us demand authenticity, or at least a standard of conduct, from people in the public eye, and reserve the harshest score if they don’t measure up.

In Japan, these impulses flare up into the endless stream of ginned-up scandals. Who are we to judge Ebizo for hanging out with the wrong people? None of us knows him. Hell, I had barely heard of him before the scandal.

No one really knows Sarah Palin despite all her exposure and all the journalist profiles and behind the scenes looks. Yet everyone has an opinion about her (I’ll concede it’s somewhat necessary to assess a potential presidential candidate).

The people with influence on what goes on the news and the rest of the media know all about this and exploit our nature ruthlessly for their own ends. Our affinity for an attractive actress gets us in the door of our local Mos Burger; a finely aged oyaji tells us it’s cool to drink a certain kind of beer; and news reports convince you in a matter of seconds that a stranger is a villain who deserves to die.

This concept applies in even the most mundane aspects of showmanship. On those Japanese shows with panels of commentators, the panelists are either competing for airtime or want to keep getting asked back. What that means for you is they stop acting like they would face-to-face and start making comments that will get the most reaction from a mass audience. There are endless ways to keep track of audience reaction these days, including Twitter and 2-channel in Japan. If you can entertain, you’re doing your job.

The same goes for blogs, in a way. I am not just talking to a friend at a bar, I am writing for the “masses” (my many dozens of readers). That means I am putting my best face forward and saying things to get a reaction. Hence, you don’t know me even if you’ve been reading me from the beginning.

I’ve met some readers offline in the past. As a rule they’ve been nothing like I would imagine from their blog comments. Only after putting the two together can I really connect their offline personality to what they write online. While they are connected and an extension of the person, it’s necessarily a cross section.

TV and essentially all media are stages where people put on shows to get a desired reaction from the audience. For better or worse, the Internet has turned everyone into a media personality, so it’s only healthy to keep this in mind when going through life, and especially when reacting to blogs and reader comments.

This post was inspired by a recent conversation with a friend who shall remain anonymous because, well, you don’t know him!

12 thoughts on “You don’t know them”

  1. “The same goes for blogs, in a way. I am not just talking to a friend at a bar, I am writing for the “masses” (my many dozens of readers). That means I am putting my best face forward and saying things to get a reaction. Hence, you don’t know me even if you’ve been reading me from the beginning.”

    Yesterday, I got a nasty message (which read a lot into a blog post of mine and concluded all sorts of things about who I was) so I issue a hearty “amen” to this. I’m never happy to be misread badly or receive ad hominem attacks which I, of course, feel are not deserved. More often than not, I think that people don’t see who people are, but see them for what they have a “need” for them to be. Sometimes, they need someone to be mad at, and will be more than happy to cast a public figure (sometimes a big fish, sometimes a tiny one) in the role of a villain so they can feel “heroic” (aka self-righteous). The timing on your post here is amazing to me considering I rarely get such messages.

    That being said, public figures, and that includes bloggers, put themselves out there. They, like you, me, and anyone else who speaks out in various public forums or media, are presenting an image. We can put a certain face forward (as do many celebrities), but we do so in order to accomplish something for our own ends. In the case of politicians, it’s essentially to gain power. For bloggers, it might be money, attention, or influence. Putting yourself out there brings rewards, but it also has a down-side.

    The yin-yang of life is that every reward requires some payment. That sacrifice for any public figure, big or small, is that people will misinterpret who you are presenting yourself as and what you say. And, what is worse, even when you attempt to clarify, they will argue that you aren’t who you think you are because they have a vested interest in distorting your words or character in order to validate their existing mindset.

    That being said, politicians actually craft their distorted personas in order to pander to their base. They are willful participants in the misunderstood images that people have of them. I have less sympathy for them than anyone else when they are taken for being something they are not. It’s like a coworker who is rude to everyone at work but is a volunteer at a hospice and nice to everyone outside of work. Does it matter who he really is? It doesn’t. It matters who he presents himself as to you personally. Politicians try to present themselves to you as if you can personally know them. They breed a sense of false intimacy (saying things like “I’m like you/I’m not like them) to a far greater extent than any other type of public figure. This is blatant manipulation, but they do it for a possible bigger reward than anyone else and therefore pay a bigger price.

    I don’t like the fact that people think they know you (generally to vilify you, but not always), but it is the price you pay for an audience. You can stay out of the sandbox because you don’t want to risk getting sand tossed in your face because people don’t like how you play, or you can get in there and understand that sometimes you’re going to be getting grit in your eyes.

  2. In the same week my “real” identity has been called a foaming at the mouth anti-Japanese racist and my blog commenting identity a “team Japan” @ssclown. What I think is the real me takes it easy.

  3. I don’t care about trying to “know” bloggers or celebrities, beyond keeping a critical eye open for what their own biases might be.

    I do care about trying to “know” politicians, since their decision making can have a very real effect on my life — whether they are presidential candidates or mere legislators or whatever.

  4. Nobody is arguing personalities on the internet, we are arguing opinions.

    The problem in Japan’s MSM is that everybody is supposed to be morally perfect, so that when some 女子アナ has a picture taken with a case of condoms she is kicked out of the company. wtf.

  5. “wtf.”

    A bigger wtf is Ebizo’s “I didn’t do anything wrong but I’m sorry for getting my ass kicked.” Given what I know of the Japanese media, I “understand” but still don’t get it.

  6. “The yin-yang of life is that every reward requires some payment.”

    What on earth does this mean ?

  7. Funny thing is after they leaked that Ebizo is a drunkard who knows every lowlife in Roppongi, it seemed he was done for good…
    but suddenly he’s a poor honest man who got his ass kicked for doing nothing?
    and his wife is on TV again ぶりっ子ing as if nothing’s happened.

    either they stop expecting celebrities to be moral examples (as happens in the west)
    or they enforce the media blackout on their scandals.

    I mean Japanese media has to be the most hypocrite ever:
    Japan is probably the country where marital infidelity is the most condoned and accepted (even expected)
    yet when some politician gets caught with a mistress then he’s bust.

    Its like the country operates by its own traditional standards, but the media operates by 17th century new england puritanism. wtf

  8. Why do you need to “know” the person? By your own admission, that is an impossible task. We probably do not even know ourselves.

    People say and do things for reasons that they may not even understand, but there are only a finite number of possibilities what those reasons are. We can assess the probability of each possibility and then form an opinion. That’s all we can do, whether with our close friends or with the person on TV.

    If Sarah Palin claims that evolution is false, then that is either an uninformed opinion or a calculated appeal to certain segments of the population. We have no way of telling for sure which it is, but the fact that she made the claim at all is sufficient for an opinion to be formed against her. It may be a superficial opinion, but its superficiality is perfectly appropriate for the level of interaction between her and the observer.

    As you say, it’s a cross section of the person. But it’s the cross section that matters. It doesn’t matter to me whether Sarah Palin is a good mother or a good wife because that is not the context of her relevance to me.

    I’ll agree that it is important to remember that there are aspects to any person’s personality that we will never know and we should not pretend to know. But I’ll also argue that those hidden aspects are irrelevant and should not stop us from forming opinions, unless we are to hold no opinions with regards to people at all.


    Something to think about in relation to this discussion – every time there is a discussion of for profit online universities in a major online forum, there seem to be posts by people at the marketing branches of those schools pretending to be pleased students. This isn’t a conspiracy theory, people have been banned for doing it on leading higher ed sites.

  10. What an odd thing to say. Nobody truly knows anybody else, it’s only a matter of degree. There’s a guy who works upstairs in my building whom I say hello to in the hallway, make smalltalk with at office social functions, and would place into my mental ‘affable acquaintance’ folder along with dozens of other people. Despite ‘knowing’ him in real life, I’ve heard and seen more from Sarah Palin (interviews, quotes, videos, soundbites, etc) than I have from this coworker; if the degree to which we ‘know’ someone grows in tune with the degree of observation we have of that person, one could argue that I know Sarah Palin better than my coworker. But, you may argue, I don’t *know* Sarah Palin because I’m only observing the mask that she puts up for public consumption. To which I would respond, the same is true of everybody (to greater or lesser degrees).

  11. “I don’t like the fact that people think they know you (generally to vilify you, but not always)”

    I was thinking of an exemple of positive “i know you” that’s probably still a plague: artists beloved by their fans.
    Fans may know all their work, and thanks to internet & al, a lot about their private life, and adore the artists for it. But still know nothing about the guys.

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